Abstract

The focus of this article is the interplay of ethnicity and gender, in particular as reflected in the changing discourses of ‘Tamil womanhood’ in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a country torn apart by a prolonged civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant group fighting for a Tamil ‘homeland’ in the north and east of the country. Two extreme images of Tamil women have emerged: (1) aggressive women soldiers and suicide bombers in the LTTE; and (2) pitiful, poverty-stricken, dependent war victims in refugee camps. In between these extremes many variations have developed, and men and women of different backgrounds are actively influencing these images. The various new identities have not replaced the earlier ‘traditional’ image of Tamil womanhood, which is still colouring gender discourse in everyday life. Feminist groups and women leaders have been struggling to oppose both the conservative discourse on Tamil womanhood, which restricts women to an domesticated, male-controlled life, and the womanhood ideal of the LTTE, which urges her to take up arms and offer herself for the nation. In spite of the lack of emancipatory support structures, many women refugees in Sri Lanka have increased their space for manoeuvre by themselves, defying deep-rooted values and images of ‘womanhood’. Refugee women are practising ideals that come very close to the Sri Lankan feminist discourse, according to which women can assert themselves in the public and the private sphere, defining and defending their own women‘s rights. This image of refugee women as strong persons is new. What are the theoretical and practical implications?

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